Battle Scars

Being a warrior, a true warrior, is a noble life. Pretending to be a warrior, but being a coward, is hopeless and brings disaster. The difference between having convictions and courage, and being plain stubborn or violent, isn't always obvious. And in the new film from New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, Once Were Warriors, we're shown how easily, and tragically, people can be confused about the difference.

Once Were Warriors focuses on a family of Maori, the native inhabitants of New Zealand. Historically, the Maori get a gold star for having fought back when the British arrived to colonize their island. The Maori were fierce enough, and successful enough, to avoid the near elimination of many native peoples, and as a result, many elements of Maori culture and language continued to be strong elements in New Zealand society. Knowing this is useful, because the filmmakers, working from a best-selling New Zealand novel by Alan Duff, assumed their audience would be familiar with the Maori's history. When the characters speak in their native tongue, or attend religious services, they're not demonstrating a resurgence of Maori pride, but following traditions that were never destroyed. When a pair of brothers talk about having blue tattoos sweeping across one's face, or carrying one's warrior pride on the inside, they're continuing a dialogue started by previous generations. Of course, it still all comes down to the universal story of a disenfranchised, once-proud people and how a community of despair is fertile ground for domestic violence.

The film's central focus is on Beth (Rena Owen) and Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), a middle-aged married couple living in the past. After 18 years of marriage, Beth is still beautiful, and still committed to the stubborn pride of her youth. As a headstrong girl, she fell in love with Jake, who came from the wrong side of the Maori spiritual tracks. His people had become scattered inner-city wage-slaves, while Beth's people had remained an intact tribe. But she was taken by his leader-of-the-pack good looks, and though her people condemned her romance, she married him. Now, though, she has five kids to care for and Jake's rebel act is wearing thin, wearing her out, driving the kids out of the house.

To Jake, his black leather pants and drinking buddies are all he's got. In the tavern he's Jake the Mus (short for muscle) and everyone pays him respect, or he puts the boot in. At home, he's the guy who never managed to buy a house for his family, and if anyone so much as looks at him sideways, his responds with rage. And he thinks of himself as coming from generations of slaves. Beth has no compassion for his fears. She responds to his self-pity by lashing out at him and screaming, "Slave to your fists, to drink and to yourself."

The Heke family lives in a rundown row house on the edge of a freeway. It's squalor multiplied; director of photography Stuart Dryburgh has infused every scene with a stale-beer yellow that reeks of poverty. The light coming through the dirty windows, the peeling paint on the walls, the ratty carpet and somehow the sky outside are all dingy. The children, miserable at home, try to escape.

Early on, it's clear the Jake has the self-control of a junkyard dog, and Beth has a few similar traits. Being frustrated is something they share. Maybe racism in New Zealand is the cause. Maybe Jake is to blame. Maybe Beth should have been more understanding. Maybe she tried too hard to be understanding and he thought she thought he was weak... You could come up with maybes from now until doomsday and still not find one that would justify Jake's violence.

Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the oldest daughter, has a journal, a collection of stories and diary entries. This ragged red spiral notebook is refereed to as Grace's "book." Even when she merely holds the book, it's her talisman. She calls the fantasies she writes for the younger children "dumb," but recording her life becomes her salvation. The writing is all she has.

Grace is only 13, but she's beginning to believe that all men are stronger than she is. Her mother, the tough lady of the neighborhood, has told her that this is so and shrugged, "It's a woman's lot." Grace can't accept that and so flees her house. Wandering alone through the filthy streets, she passes whores, tattoo parlors, evangelists and then a makeshift gym. The two men inside ignore her. She watches as one beats staccato on a punching bag and the other lifts a dumbbell. She gazes at the men only briefly, but as she looks, she succumbs to the idea that men will always be stronger than she is. Watching Grace give up, overwhelmed by what she's experienced and the sight of two men who never touch her, never even speak to her, is one of Warriors' most chilling scenes. Kerr-Bell, in her debut role, is quite an actress. She expresses complete and heartbreaking defeat by simply hugging her book closer to her chest and walking on back home.

But if she can't make it on the street, her older brother, Nig (Julian Arahanga), can: he runs with a Maori gang. The violence of the Heke home is so savage that it's understandable how Nig could so easily endure the beating required for initiation into his gang. He's seduced by the gang members because they have elegantly tattooed faces, elaborate dreadlocks -- and rules. They may be car thieves and muggers, but they're predictable. To Nig, after life with his father, life in his gang's barbed wire-wrapped warehouse enclave is like a picnic.

Despite the air of violence that permeates Once Were Warriors, there are surprisingly few scenes of people being pummeled or stomped. The brutality is effective because of quality, not quantity. Director Tamahori doesn't deal in choreographed Hollywood fisticuffs. When someone's being pounded, we don't see clever special effects of pneumatic model cheekbones smashing. Tamahori has put something else on screen: real violence. When Jake and his mates fight, it's quick and dirty and destructive. And, as when people erupt in rage in real life, afterward it's hard to tell exactly what happened.

Jake's ever-present lurking rage is the truly disturbing element. Anything could set him off, at any time -- and the most unpleasant aspect of Warriors is that we can understand how Jake feels. On a car trip, Jake the good dad is leading the kids in a sing-along, but his eyes show an edge that says he's suffering, and he's looking for an excuse to make someone else suffer, too. Everyone in the car sings along, with merry voices, and all their eyes are dark seas of fear and sorrow. When livid and when seething, Morrison always reveals at least two sides of Jake's character -- both his naive sentiment and his evil.

Once Were Warriors is so relentless and so painfully realistic in its depiction of what social workers and the police call "domestic violence" that it's wrenching to watch. The director and cast never put a foot wrong. By emphasizing characters, by making this a story about people rather than a preachy diatribe about an issue, Tamahori has made Once Were Warriors a very serious work, and one so intense that not all the made-for-TV movies and talk shows in the world couldn't prepare you for it.

Once Were Warriors.
Directed by Lee Tamahori. With Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell and Julian Arahanga.

Rated R.
102 minutes.


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